Occupy Vanity: Ecclesiastes and the Occupy Wall Street Movement

This is a lecture I gave in 2013 in a course on the Wisdom Literature, examining the Book of Ecclesiastes in light of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The course was taught by the Rev. Dr. Damien Dietlein, OSB–or, as we called him, “Damo”–, a legend at Saint Meinrad and a biblical scholar of the highest caliber and a minister of the deepest love. Studying under such a giant is among the greatest honors of my life.

The Occupy movement seemed to die not with a bang but a whimper, but, in light of the current climate, I can’t help but wonder if that whimper doesn’t camouflage a bang still waiting to get rebung. But what do I know?

References in the lecture to Támez are to Elsa Támez. “Ecclesiastes: a Reading from the Periphery.” Interpretation: A Journal Of Bible & Theology 55, no. 3 (July 2001): 250-259. References to Seow are from Choon-Leong Seow’s Anchor Bible: Ecclesiastes.

If You’re Looking to Make My Day…

..then what you’re gonna want to do is write a 2016 doctoral dissertation on my main man, Rev. W. Norris Clarke, S.J. (1915-2008), have it available for free online, and have me discover it earlier today by total surprise. That’s just what John J. Winkowitsch has done with his W. Norris Clarke’s Relational Metaphysics: Being and Person from Catholic University of America. Clarke first came on my radar about ten years ago in an undergrad course in metaphysics through his 2000 magnum opus The One and the Many, and his thought has done more to shape–not dictate–my own than any other thinker I’ve been exposed to in my adult life. Sadly, Fr. Clarke passed away not long after I first learned of his work, so I never had the chance to meet him.

frnorrisclarke

Yes, I see my typo in “Person-to-Person.” No, I’m not fixing it. You lose some.

Winkowitsch’s dissertation is pretty much what I’ll be up to for the next few days. From the abstract:

William Norris Clarke firmly placed “person” at the core of his philosophy. He spent much of his career attempting to develop a Thomistic metaphysics that took into account phenomenological insights into the nature of person as relational. His life-long philosophical project was an attempt to articulate a Thomistically-inspired relational metaphysics that united the scholastic notion of person as substance with the phenomenological notion of person as relation. The final result of Clarke’s creative retrieval of Thomas Aquinas was, in his own words, the personalization of being itself from within Thomistic metaphysics, such that the ultimate meaning of existence is person-to-person gift and the ultimate key to the mystery of existence is interpersonal love.

For more sweet, sweet Norris Clarke nuggets online, Fordham has the full text of The Philosophical Approach to God available. And justifying the existence of the Internet in its entirety, below are two videos of Clarke in conversation with another favorite philosopher of mine, the late James Arraj. (For those keeping score, I’m more inclined to Arraj’s take on relational realism, which follows William Carlo and leans heavily on the relational as what is real, denying essence any objective existence at all. I know–just wait’ll all the single the ladies hear about that!)

Taking A New Look at the Hebrew Bible

torah

 

Bobby Valentine, who writes the excellent blog Stoned-Campbell Disciple, is in the midst of a fascinating series called The Renewed Perspective on the Old Testament. In it he explores long-standing approaches to the Old Testament in Christian biblical theology, which have colored academic biblical studies and Christian preaching for generations, which see the Jewish scripture largely in terms of a legalistic manifesto aimed at mapping a path for humans to earn divine favor, as opposed to the Christian scripture, which celebrates the freely given grace and love of God.

In a highly relevant and credible historical survey, Mr. Valentine shows how this vision very much misses the arc of the converging pre-Christian Hebrew theologies we find in the Bible. In the era of the Reformation, Luther and his fellow Reformers, rightly denouncing how corruptions in the institutional Western Church had obfuscated the message of grace through self-serving ecclesiastical systems, projected their battle with Rome onto the Pauline struggle with those who opposed opening covenantal love to the nations. In short, the Reformers read all of medieval Christianity as a battle between grace and legalism and projected that same battle onto Paul. Our perception of the Old Testament as a graceless, loveless rulebook is the result in large part of these dual unfair projections.*

(*If I may be permitted one friendly quibble, Mr. Valentine’s language doesn’t always make clear that the first projection was also painting with far too wide a brush. There was much vibrant, grace-driven, love-focused life in the medieval Catholic Church and in Scholastic theology, as real as the corruptions the Reformers opposed were. Can I get a high-five from my fellow Campbellite Thomists? Anybody?)

Through the series, Mr. Valentine explores how Torah means so much more than just law, and how the Old Testament is steeped in celebrations of grace and love.

Apologia Pro Vida Loca

vida

 

In the last few months, as I’ve shared before, I’ve experienced major transitions in the way I live out my Christian identity and ministry. Nine months ago, I was a candidate for priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church, and happy to move forward into that ministry if I had been invited to do so, and would have served loyally and well for the rest of my days and have counted it a life well lived–even reaching the point where I ceremonially declared at the altar of God Most High my intention to enter that ministry, after being unanimously and without reservation endorsed for such ministry by my seminary faculty; today, I am a hospital chaplain who worships with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Many dear friends have asked for a fuller accounting of how this transition occurred, so I’ll try to lay it out here as best I can. Please know that there is no polemical intent in this posting. When I speak of how my thoughts have developed, I don’t mean to imply that your thoughts should develop that way, too. I’m grateful to my friend Sarah C. and to a chaplaincy fellowship opportunity I’m applying for, as a letter from her and the application process gave me the opportunity to put much of this together. Since I’m not even almost disciplined enough to journal, these were my first opportunities to put this all together in one place.

promises

Making solemn ordination promises at Saint Meinrad Seminary upon faculty reccomendation for ordination, 2016.

 

That the evolution of my faith life led me to part formal company with the Roman Catholic Church is something that, in a sense, has been coming for years, while just a year ago, I didn’t see it coming and was preparing for a very different path. I use the word “evolution” when describing my faith life intentionally. By that, I don’t mean progression from something lower to something higher or from something worse to something better, but rather that coming out of the chaos of life, with no tool other than the mistake and the mutation, my faith has developed in each period of my life in a way most suitable for its survival and continuation.

In a sense, I’ve been on the same trajectory since my youth in the churches of Christ, a trajectory of asking questions and not letting my opinion yesterday be the dictator of my decisions tomorrow. It makes life messy–hitting the mid-life reset button has its challenges—but without that spirit of engaging things, without the same tendencies that led me to part ways with Roman Catholicism, I would never have had the incomparable blessing of being part of Roman Catholicism for 20 years. So, in the revisionist narrative in my mind, anyway, coming into the Roman Catholic Church and walking away were part of the same movement, totally consistent with each other.

Sometimes even I forget that what first put Roman Catholicism on my radar as a teenager wasn’t questions of orthodoxy and authority, but bumbling into documents of Vatican II, especially Nostra aetate on Christian relations with people of other faith traditions. Though I was already a preacher by 14, it didn’t take long into my work to be troubled by our exclusivism. That exclusivism was not bigotry, but the—or, at least, a—logical progression from our teaching on the nature and form of baptism, which blended an Anabaptist view on the form of the rite with a biblical and historically Catholic view on its nature. (That I came from the most conservative segment of the Stone-Campbell Movement, the noninstitutional churches, and that, unlike some peoples’ stories you’ll read, my experiences in the churches of Christ were personally very healthy, have surely colored everything that has come after.) Vatican II’s message that other Christians were separated brethren and that the Spirit of God blows where he wills, even in the lives of followers of other religious paths, was a breath of fresh air, and it inspired me to explore Catholicism further.

Somewhere along the line, given the positions with which I was raised, I got spooked, and took a rightward shift in my thinking, sort of hitting the brakes on the opening of my mind for the sake of security. I turned back to the questions that my upbringing in the churches of Christ had instilled in me—what’s the one, true Church, the one true faith? The problem was that I had already begun to be exposed to enough historical-critical scholarship to tell me that the answer seemed to be almost certainly not a one-to-one institutional correspondence between the true Church and our own fellowship in the churches of Christ. So, I kept exploring Roman Catholicism—being deep in history may not, it turns out, mean ceasing to be Protestant, but it does mean being deep in Catholicism—and found what struck me at the time as much more credible answers to the questions my upbringing in the churches of Christ taught me to ask than they themselves had.

So, in I came, and when I did, at 17, I did so fully convinced that the Roman Catholic Church was the one true Church, teaching the one true faith, that the magisterium infallibly proclaims dogma, and that only Catholic ministries and sacraments—and those they recognize—were valid. It meant embracing that my own ministry and the ministries of those who served my family and me for generations, were, at least in a sense, illicit–”absolutely null and utterly void” is how Leo XIII would characterize them, and that the communions I received every Sunday all my life were so objectively inferior to the ones I was about to receive that I could look forward to my “first communion” after receiving communion with dear brothers and sisters in Christ for ten years.

confirm

Photo with friends after Confirmation and reception into the Roman Catholic Church, 1998

Still, compared to the ideological—and, to reiterate, entirely non-bigoted—exclusivism of the fellowship of my youth, Catholic exclusivism is quite moderate—as far removed from the perspective of many in the churches of Christ as the churches of Christ are from Westboro—so even becoming a conservative, EWTN-style Catholic was a liberalizing move. I found my experience of Catholicism to be truly awesome. That’s not just diplomacy or false graciousness. The language and imagery I use to relate to the divine is to this day deeply Catholic. Thomas Aquinas remains and shall ever be my homeboy. Albeit sometimes with some nuance, I can’t think of a single thing affirmed by Catholic teaching that I can’t assent to.

The affirmations are great. It’s them pesky negations!

Even now, I have no problem identifying the Roman Catholic Church as a true Church, the Catholic faith as a true faith, but my conviction that it is the one true Church, the one true faith started eroding as early as 1999 and 2000, when I was first in undergraduate seminary. I had outstanding professors in scripture in both college and grad school, and, being a Bible dork anyway, I dove into critical scholarship of scripture and Church history. (Though always as a buff; I’m too unsystematic and dyslexically monoglotic to be a real scholar myself.) In undergrad seminary, we all majored in philosophy, and I tried, between awesome nights of making memories with my amigos, to take seriously the work of exploring perspectives that challenged my own. As a teenage preacher in the churches of Christ, I once preached that we should give serious thought to including the Apocrypha in our Old Testament canon, not imagining that this tangential idea would put me on a path into Catholicism. As a 20 year old seminarian, I wrote papers defending the validity of Anglican orders and Mormon baptism, not imagining that these tangents were the first steps on a long journey out the back door. I remember my reaction when reading Cardinal Ratzinger‘s—who I actually admire quite a bit and whose Introduction to Christianity is one of my all-time favorite works of theology—Dominus Iesus, which reiterated the Catholic claim that non-Catholic communities don’t merit the name church: It started with an ‘m’ and rhymed with “high class.”

I took to heart the Thomist principle that the divine is unknowable as it is in itself, that all God language, even inspired God language, is an analogy in which the proposed likeness is exceeded infinitely by unlikeness. It seems to follow from this that all narrative God language is myth—even when it’s historically rooted—and all propositional God language is metaphor. That made dogma itself a problematic concept for me. When two metaphors stand in tension—or even contradiction—I’m not sure it’s meaningful to say that one of them is wrong. More or less helpful from a certain perspective, and sometimes even harmful, but facticity and falsehood strike me as simply out of the metaphor’s jurisdiction. Proposing a set of metaphors as dogma and anathematizing others—no, anathematizing people because they prefer others—when even the orthodox proposition is infinitely more unlike the reality of the divine than it is like it, became a harder and harder sell for me over the years. I happen to think that Nicaea and Chalcedon—and even, in its own way, Trent—were brilliant, and they remain in large part the prism through which I view God. My issue was never with the dogmas, but with dogma itself.

As I’ve explored and continue to explore the historical origins of scripture and of the Church, I’ve found the model of an originally uniform and orthodox Church being split and degraded by heretical sects and ideas, the model often proposed both in the churches of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church, not to match the evidence particularly well. Instead, it looks a lot more like diversity all the way down. The Matthean community is definitely not the Pauline, is definitely not the Johannine, and they’re sometimes in deep tension, yet all are Church. The solution to Christian disunity I held in my youth—to oversimplify–was to de-Christianize everybody outside our gates. The Roman Catholic solution—also oversimplified–is to hope for the day when other communities are absorbed by her own. My present mindset is that the most historically conscious means to unity—the most authentic way, if you will, to restore first century Christianity—is to welcome and celebrate a diversity of perspectives and communities. I don’t mean by that a sheer relativism, as if all differences between theologies don’t matter—I’m fully ready to scrutinize my pet peeve theologies, like double predestination, the prosperity gospel, or the exclusion of women from an equal place in ministry—but they matter less than what we hold in common, the Lordship of Christ, and I feel bound by conscience to welcome those who hold contrary views to the Lord’s Table. When the day came when I was in search of a new community for my primary affiliation, then, it would have to be one which extended such a welcome.

I stayed in the Roman Catholic Church for years out of a sense of loyalty and true love for a community that has enriched my soul for so long—and I was so greatly blessed by my time with them. But I reached a point last year where it was made painfully clear to me that as a minister, there simply was no longer a place for me to serve healthily and with integrity. I used to say that I’d have made a heck of a priest in 1975. While there were plenty of tensions and high emotions in my departure, there’s no ill will. Like Paul and Barnabas, my dear Catholic friends and I will continue to serve the same mission, just in different places and in different ways.

The Disciples of Christ came on my radar several years ago. Once I got over the need to salve my own insecurities by being an apologist and going on the attack against the churches of Christ, I began re-exploring my own faith heritage. I found much in my own Stone-Campbell roots that spoke deeply to me where I was at, especially in Thomas Campbell and Barton Stone. The Disciples have carried on with the unity pillar of the Restoration Movement on a progressive and inclusive trajectory that feels very much like home for me. For years, I’ve thought of them as the community I would join if I were in the market for a community. It’s just that I wasn’t in the market until recent months. I’m very hopeful for our future together.

A Time to Be Ordinary

This is adapted from a sermon preached at the hospital chapel on Sunday, January 15, in Lexington, Kentucky. It was an especially meaningful service for me, marking the first time in nearly 20 years that I was privileged to preside at communion, which was offered in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., those who passed away at our hospital the previous week, and, in keeping with a promise I made in 1998 in exchange for the gift of a cheeseburger from JT’s, Thomas J. “Sidewalk Tom” Egizio.

jesus-carpenter

This time of year, as winter sets in, my mind is always taken back to Christmastime as a child. I know that for some people, Christmas conjures up hurtful memories, but I’m blessed in that, at least as a young child, all of my Christmas memories are joyful As the holiday drew nearer, I’d wake up each morning more and more excited, anticipating the coming awesomeness that was Christmas. Yes, part of that was because I knew Santa was coming, and I’d have me some sweet new stuff, but I also really looked forward to the family time together.

Then Christmas would come and go, and I’d wake up the next morning with this sense of emptiness inside. I’d spent so long drawing energy from the holiday I was looking forward to, that on the next day, all I could think was: now what? A sadness, a darkness, even, would set in over my young soul.

If you look at the Church calendar that many Christians use, you’ll see the same dynamic at work. We have our high points in the Church year: Advent and Christmas, just past. Lent and Easter later on. In the Christmas season, we have that great holiday, then we follow up by celebrating other extraordinary moments: Epiphany, when the presence of God is revealed to the nations, the Baptism of the Lord, when Jesus is anointed as Christ and launches his mission.

That’s all done, so now what? Well, we just start counting. The first Sunday after Epiphany, or the second Sunday, as it’s sometimes called, of “ordinary time.” And it feels that way, doesn’t it? All this joy and celebration, and now we’re left to taste the cold reality of the ordinary.

That word, “ordinary,” comes from our “ordinal numbers”–that’s the name for numbers like 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. In other words, this ordinary time is all about, well, one thing after another.

When I think about my childhood post-Christmas malaise in the face of the ordinary, it’s really not something I’ve ever gotten over. Even now, I’ve still got that same childish attitude. I want some big event to look forward to, and while I’m looking toward the future, I fail to notice the gift of the every day, the gift of the ordinary.

What is the ordinary? It’s feeding the baby at midnight, then changing the baby at 2, then feeding the baby again at 4, then going to work, then filing this report, or hauling this load or feeding this cow or fixing this leak. It’s paying bills and filing taxes and arguing with our loved ones over nothing. It’s flat tires and root canals and stopped up toilets. It’s shoveling snow and stubbing your toe and paper cuts and spilled coffee. It’s looking in the mirror one day and thinking, “I hope nobody notices that I’m faking it” and in what feels like a heartbeat later, looking in the same mirror and wondering where the young woman or man we used to be has gone.

It’s in between all this everyday stuff, all this one thing after another, that life happens. It’s in between taxes and stubbed toes that we make friends and fall in love, in between changing diapers and cutting the grass that we tell stories, sing songs, breathe in fresh air and take in the beauty of nature.

With my attitude, I’m in danger, by always looking off in the distance to some great milestone in the future, to some Epiphany, of missing out on my entire life. The day will come—and here in a hospital we see it all the time—the day will come when I would give anything to have my average, everyday, boring, routine, ordinary time back.

In our reading from Isaiah (49:1-7) God says, “I knit you together in your mother’s womb to be my messenger.” That means God is found, that means God works in every moment of our lives, womb to tomb. Every second we breathe is an opportunity to breathe in the Spirit of God. Every moment has the potential, no matter how ordinary, to be sacred. Sometimes, we’re called to do extraordinary things for God’s kingdom of justice and peace. But most of our time is ordinary, and it is in the ordinary that we do God’s work. Loving our families, doing our jobs well, extending the smallest kindness to the lonely and the stranger.

Jesus is no stranger to the extraordinary. Our Christian story celebrates amazing events from his virgin birth through calming the seas, healing the sick, raising the dead, and conquering death itself in his own glorious resurrection. But what does he do today (John 1:29-42), when he calls his closest disciples, the ones who will be his apostles and launch this great, world-changing movement we call Christianity? He says, “come and see,” y’all come on over to my house and stay the night. Sitting around the house, sharing a meal, swapping stories from the fishing boat and the woodshop. That’s about as ordinary a time as you can get, and from that ordinary night of friends spending time together was born the faith that has touched the hearts and shaped the lives of millions and millions over 20 centuries.

Of all the special gifts that taking time to be ordinary offers us, none is more sacred than what we are doing here in this chapel, gathered around this sacred altar, this open table. Here we will take ordinary stuff of bread and the fruit of the vine, do the ordinary thing of sharing a meal together, and, united in faith, in hope, and in love we will break through illusion of the ordinary, and for a moment be transported beyond time, beyond space, into the mystery that connects us all, that great mystery that Jesus named “Father.” The bread that we break, the cup of blessing that we bless, are a communion with the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who heals the wounds of the world and feeds us on his very self. All are one at this table. All are welcome at this table. By the grace of God, no one is unworthy to dine here except for him who would try to exclude others. We are offered bread from heaven, having within it all sweetness, bread for the journey, giving us strength to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves as we move forward through our everyday, ordinary time.

On Benjamin Corey on the Saints

saints.jpg

Earlier today, popular–and rightly so–progressive Evangelical Christian blogger Benjamin Corey posted a piece called When Bad Theology Tricks You Into Praying to A Toy (Should We Pray to Saints?) on his Patheos blog, Formerly Fundie. I very much appreciate Dr. Corey’s work, which seeks to redeem the Evangelical wing of Christianity from its entanglement with the politico-religious right, calling on his fellow Evangelicals to embrace what he (and I) feel are the best inclinations of their Evangelical and our common Christian tradition. Dr. Corey’s is a message of inclusion and outreach to the margins, and he’s not afraid to respectfully bump heads with the more conservative–and, it seems, dominant–voices in Evangelicalism.

It’s inevitable, I suppose, that Dr. Corey and I will have different perspectives at times. He remains rooted in Evangelical Christianity, and I, though loving, respecting, and welcoming Evangelicals as sisters and brothers in Christ have never been one. My own Christian journey has taken me–if I may oversimplify–from a conservative Stone-Campbell Movement perspective to a conservative Roman Catholic perspective to a progressive Roman Catholic perspective to, almost full-circle, a progressive Stone-Campbell perspective, as a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). A diversity of opinions under the umbrella of Christianity is a very good–and very biblical–thing, so my taking respectful issue with him here shouldn’t be read as a rejection or condemnation. I was, however, troubled by today’s blog.

In commenting on the story circulating social media about the Brazilian lady confusing a Lord of the Rings elf toy for St. Anthony and praying to it for years, Dr. Corey made a theological case against the practice of the cult of the saints, ultimately concluding:

But because she was taught to follow superstitious tradition instead of Jesus, she literally became an idol worshipper without even realizing it.

Earlier in the piece, Dr. Corey recognized that “It’s true that this practice is commonplace within two major streams of Christianity (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox), which also means that by the numbers, the majority of Christians world-wide pray to Saints.” He rightly pointed out that the majority need not necessarily be correct. He also made it clear, by identifying Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions as Christian, that he is not coming from a place of bigotry.

But here’s where I might challenge Dr. Corey: if a practice is part of the living prayer life of the majority of Christians which, at least to some degree, the cult of saints is, then that means it’s likely–or at least, I hope he’ll consider–possible that the practice has been a real means of real people having real encounters with divine grace. I hope he’ll consider that the practice may not be aberrant–it may just be foreign to him.

I’ve fancied myself open minded and inclusive in my approach to theology for some time now, yet working as a hospital chaplain, I frequently encounter variations of Christian piety that are very much unlike my own. And I’m tempted to dismiss them as primitive, as superstitious, even as aberrant, but, thanks to the willingness of my sisters and brothers in this ministry to knock me upside the head, I realize that more often than not, I’m bringing my own assumptions about what good piety looks like with me, and setting up Jeff Childers as the paragon of prayer and virtue. Which, I ain’t. I’m glad to have my fellow chaplains with me to call out my theo-xenophobia!

In a recent piece on the Immaculate Conception, I mentioned that, in 20 years as a Roman Catholic, I never really integrated the cult of the saints into my personal piety. I didn’t (and don’t) oppose it, but my prayer methods and habits were formed in a different community with different traditions. It was only a couple years ago, getting to spend some time in a Hispanic inculturation program, that I came to a new appreciation of this type of prayer. Those who are devoted to the saints, as different as their piety looks, are expressing the same awe, the same gratitude, the same sense of dependence on the transcendent mystery that Jesus named “Father” as I am when I pray extemporaneously or dig into the Word.

The cult of the saints is a form of piety that vividly illustrates that we’re inter-connected, that we’re all in this together. It’s a way of honoring Jesus Christ as the one mediator between God and humanity that did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at, but emptied himself, sharing in our humanity that we might share in his divinity. The Christian story celebrates that Christ brings us all with him into the divine identity, that we become pats of his sacred Body, and that his Spirit dwells in all of us, praying in, for, and through us. Like Dr. Corey, the cult of the saints, this great cloud of witnesses that stand before the Father with and in the Blood of Christ that we need not fear to approach the divine, ain’t my joint.

But the piety of the millions through the ages who have been drawn closer to Christ through this foreign and weird feeling devotion ought not to to be lightly dismissed as superstitious or aberrant. Their devotion to the saints has been the sacred means of empowering them to love God and love their neighbors as themselves. It is a treasure of the Christian heritage.